Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Bill to ban smoking in all outdoor dining areas to be introduced today by Montgomery County Council

Smoking and vaping on outdoor patios at Montgomery County restaurants could soon be a thing of the past, if Montgomery County Council Bill 35-18 passes. Scheduled to be introduced by Councilmember Sidney Katz (D - District 3) today, the bill would ban smoking and vaping in all outdoor dining areas, including partially-enclosed spaces.

A public hearing on the bill is currently scheduled for October 23, 2018 at 1:30 PM. The Council will also have to sit as the Board of Health, and pass an accompanying regulation as that board, to legally enact the smoking ban.

The legislation is very similar to that passed by the Rockville Mayor & Council last year. Adam Zimmerman, an activist who spearheaded the Rockville effort, is also advocating for the County to pass Bill 35-18. He says the ban will improve health, while increasing business at venues non-smokers currently avoid.

Rockville's ban was opposed by some restaurant owners, such as Danny Trahan of Mellow Mushroom. Trahan closed his restaurant permanently last month - though the smoking ban wasn't the primary reason. He viewed the ban as the last straw in Montgomery County's costly and unwelcoming business climate. It will be interesting to see what restaurateurs have to say about the proposed County ban.

Residents who testified before the Mayor & Council last shared Zimmerman's view that business would improve, citing their reluctance to dine at two Rockville Town Square restaurants that allowed outdoor smoking before the ban. Because many restaurants now open their doors and windows, patrons have also complained that smoke now drifts inside from patios.

Friday, September 28, 2018

MoCo school board approves new redistricting criteria that dodges fixing Midcounty, Upcounty schools

Move to disconnect
home address from 
coveted school districts 
would reduce home values

Your vote in November's election will now literally determine the future value of your home. The Montgomery County Board of Education this week approved new criteria for redistricting of public schools that would force the busing of students from affluent school clusters in Bethesda, Potomac and Rockville. In their comments prior to the 5-3 vote, some board members specifically cited students in the "W school" clusters in the southwest part of the county as having to be bused to other schools around the county. Because the new criteria puts the heaviest weight on diversity, the policy as written could only be achieved by busing students out of their currently-assigned Walt Whitman, Walter Johnson, Winston Churchill and Thomas S. Wootton clusters (the districts to which the term "W school" are most commonly applied).
Montgomery County Council President Hans Riemer
has made no secret of his desire to change who gets
to attend the most coveted schools in areas like
Bethesda and Potomac
Montgomery County Councilmembers Hans Riemer and Craig Rice have openly endorsed the idea of detaching homeownership or residency from school cluster assignment in the affluent southwest of the County for several years. But the BOE move this week is the first formal codification of this desire in County regulations. Rice mocked Whitman parents from the Council dais in 2016, declaring in an entitled-sounding voice, "I moved to the Whitman cluster, and therefore I must go to Whitman High School! People lose sight that somehow you attending Whitman is better than attending Gaithersburg or Northwest. That should not be the case," Rice said. "It should not be about what your zip code is."

On Monday night, BOE members took aim at those same parents. Jill Ortman-Fouse, who ran unsuccessfully for the Council and doesn't face reelection for the Board, also criticized the idea that "when you buy a house, you buy a school. And [parents] even said that in their emails. They said 'I bought my house for that school.'" Chiding those parents, she said, "all of those schools are owned by all of the taxpayers. They aren't owned by certain neighborhoods." She denounced the belief that "only certain kids get to go to those schools." Jeannette Dixon added that "an easy commute to school" should not be a criteria for school assignment.

Board member Judith Docca explicitly called out the "W school" clusters, and said that busing of students must include those students from more affluent families. Of those who spoke during the public comment period prior to the vote, Docca noted, "only one speaker mentioned a W school. And that's where some of the students are that need to interact with some of our other students. That is not happening. When we talk about all students, we mean those students as well. I know that it's not going to be easy to do."

That could be the understatement of the decade. If there's any doubt this move is coordinated between the BOE and councilmembers like Riemer and Rice, note their similar talking points. In 2016, Rice declared that "boundary changes used to be a third rail." Monday night, Ortman-Fouse called redistricting "the third rail."

BOE members acknowledged the new criteria, which would certainly reduce home values in the "W schools" communities, will be a hard sell. Ortman-Fouse referred to parents hitting the "panic button." "There will be unintended outcomes," MCPS Superintendent Jack Smith - who declined to take a position for or against the new criteria - warned, "and we will all live with them."

Smith is usually dead wrong on most topics, having failed to keep students safe or reduce the achievement gap during his term, but he made one of the best points during the discussion. In regards to what most determines student achievement, "the secret is what happens in that classroom," he said.

The superintendent is correct. Busing did not lead to equal education. Instead, we have an achievement gap that persists to this day in America. You can bus a child to another school, but they still come from the same income-level family as they would have in their neighborhood school. If diversity of race or socioeconomic background were the top factor in academic success for a school, Whitman or any number of elite private schools in the area would be among the worst-performing. They are not.

Some proponents of the new criteria are predictably quick to call opponents "racist." In reality, the new criteria is what is racist. This is a dodge by MCPS to avoid the actual challenging work of improving the worst-performing schools in the County. The Council has wasted yet another term, failing to reduce the achievement gap and geographic educational inequities in areas like East County and the Upcounty. 

Dropping final exams has already led to MCPS gaining an "Easy A" reputation across the country, according to the Washington Post. This will hurt Montgomery County public school students in the college admissions process over time, if not reversed. Now MCPS is dropping the PARCC tests, for the same harebrained reason that the kids can't pass the tests. Can't pass the test? Get rid of the tests, our County "leaders" say. Can't improve failing schools? Bus kids around to try to artificially-but-slightly boost test scores, even if it causes scores at the top schools to drop.

This is the definition of "the soft bigotry of low-expectations."

As Jaime Escalante proved three decades ago, student groups of any racial or economic background can perform at the highest levels. It's the teacher and the curriculum that make the difference. Contrary to Riemer's claim that there must be rich, white students in a classroom for black and Latino students to excel, Escalante's students achieved high scores without "Richie Rich" sitting at the next desk.

How do we know "the secret is what happens in that classroom," as Smith said? After Escalante left Garfield High School in East Los Angeles, student math performance tanked. Kind of like Algebra test scores in Montgomery County in recent years.

Redistricting and busing could be a post-election surprise for many parents, especially with no accurate media coverage of Monday night's change. Several schools are already due for new or changed assignments before the end of this year, such as those impacted by a new high school opening for Downtown Crown in Gaithersburg. The clusters affected in that redistricting will be Wootton, Richard Montgomery, Quince Orchard, Northwest and Gaithersburg. Clarksburg Village #2, another new school, will also be districted this fall. Development pressures in Bethesda and Silver Spring make boundary changes inevitable in those areas, especially with elected officials showing a new boldness to touch that "third rail."

According to board veteran Patricia O'Neill, who voted for the new criteria, boundary changes will be "happening pretty darn soon." Docca referred to the implementation of the new criteria as "the operation."

Impacts of the changes are clear: reduced home values when a particular address no longer guarantees entry to coveted schools, perpetuation of failure at failing schools countywide, longer bus commutes for already-tired students, and a continuing achievement gap. 

Can "the operation" be stopped? Yes. By electing Council candidates who oppose this dodge of the County's fundamental responsibility to provide good schools in every neighborhood. If elected, I would use the ultimate power to force the BOE to drop the new criteria. It is the County Council that funds MCPS. The BOE would have a hard time operating with no funding.

If you currently live in an area with coveted schools, your vote on Tuesday, November 6 will literally determine the future value of your home, and the futures of children countywide. We need leaders who won't sidestep the major challenges we face for another four years, including failing schools and an unacceptable achievement gap. The failed solutions of the past won't move us forward into the future.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Riemer a no-show at Council debate

Coward of the County

Montgomery County Council President Hans Riemer continued a historic streak of not showing up for major candidate forums yesterday, when he blew off a morning debate sponsored by the Clarksburg Chamber of Commerce. A packed house of business owners turned out to hear from the candidates for Montgomery County Council At-Large. But Riemer was a no-show, leaving myself, Gabe Albornoz (D), Evan Glass (D) and Shelly Skolnick (R) to have a substantive discussion of the issues our business community faces in our moribund economy.

Riemer has not attended a general election debate since I destroyed him in a forum televised live by Montgomery Community Television/MyMCMedia in 2014. He did not show up to the next and final debate that year, which was hosted by the Greater Olney Civic Association. Riemer's action was a historic first in Montgomery County politics - the first time a sitting councilmember had skipped a formal general election debate hosted by a prominent community group. After Wednesday in Clarksburg, his record streak is now up to two.

No Council sessions were scheduled yesterday; in fact, the Council's lazy, endless summer doesn't end until next Tuesday, September 11. But you can understand why Riemer would be hiding. He has failed to deliver any of the priorities the residents and businesses in Clarksburg have sought. And Riemer vehemently opposes their top two priorities - building the M-83 Highway, and widening I-270.

Hans Riemer's failure to show up was an insult to the taxpayers who pay his $137,000 salary, and to the democratic process. Once again, Hans has demonstrated he doesn't care about his upcounty constituents.

But again, it's understandable Hans would be hiding - he has a lot to hide, with so many controversial questions about him still unanswered, and to be investigated by the press:

- Why does so much of his campaign cash come from outside the County, and largely from Wall Street crooks who caused the Great Recession, and their K Street lobbyists?

- Why has he accepted campaign checks from Mitt Romney's Bain Capital and Mitch Rales' Danaher Corporation, two pioneers in outsourcing American jobs overseas, while claiming to be a "progressive Democrat?"

- Why did he fail to disclose illegal activity in the County Department of Liquor Control he was aware of in October 2014 until after Election Day, when he was safely reelected, a violation of his oath of office?

- Why did he vote to create a $360,000,000 federal tax shelter for his sugar daddy Mitch Rales, after receiving at least $4000 in campaign contributions from Rales?

- Why has he repeatedly touted his role as "Obama's Youth Vote Director" in Barack Obama's 2008 victory, when a source from the Obama campaign has said Riemer was actually out of that position in the spring of 2008 - long before Mr. Obama had even clinched the nomination, much less his general election victory?

It's astonishing that Hans Riemer was able to win election, and serve two full terms, without any scrutiny by local media on these and other controversies. With at least two debates remaining, it's time for Hans Riemer to man-up and face the music on his scandals and utter failure in office. For now, he's earned his title as the "Coward of the County."

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Riemer advances zoning scheme that would quadruple MCPS overcrowding

Montgomery County Council President Hans Riemer is quietly advancing his long-term scheme to implode zoning in single-family home neighborhoods in the County, when the Council returns from its endless summer of idle vacation. On Tuesday, September 11, 2018, a public hearing will be held on a bill to loosen the approval process of accessory apartments in the County. The proposed changes will weaken protections regarding street parking for existing homeowners, speed the approval process for accessory apartments in residential neighborhoods, and greatly reduce the opportunity for public input and objections to accessory apartments in your neighborhood.

What is Riemer's goal in expanding the number of accessory apartments in established SFH suburban neighborhoods? His plan is to subdivide every existing SFH lot in the County into 4 new housing units. Riemer has been caught on Facebook discussing his plans to allow every SFH lot to be rezoned for duplexes. Each of those duplexes would then be allowed to have an accessory apartment.

Accessory apartments have been sold to the public with the idea of one person living in a rental room, or as "granny pods," for families who apparently can't stand to be inside the same home with Grandma in her declining years. How heartwarming. In reality, the County's accessory apartment code - and the new language - openly acknowledges there could be children in these accessory units.

So each lot could ultimately have two new homes with families, and each of their accessory units could generate additional students for Montgomery County Public Schools. A potential of four families on each site that today can hold only one. Importantly, Riemer's duplex and accessory apartment scheme does not, to this point, provide any new funding to cover the surge in school construction costs it would cause. Kind of like the sector plans Riemer voted to approve, come to think of it.

Like many housing schemes advanced by Riemer, his developer sugar daddies, and his developer-funded Greater Greater Washington fellow travelers, the duplex/accessory apartment gimmick is presented under the banner of "affordable housing." But like all of the other schemes, that promise is false. After two decades of unrestrained development, with a brief Great Recession pause, home prices and rents in Montgomery County have increased, not decreased.
Riemer has made no secret of his
contempt for Montgomery County's
suburban and rural character
The duplexes proposed by Riemer would not be any more affordable than the existing large houses on those suburban lots. If townhomes in those neighborhoods currently sell for over $1,000,000, what do you imagine a larger, new-construction duplex home would go for in 20816? Certainly not for the "affordable" price that Riemer and GGW would ask you to believe.

Embarrassingly, carpetbagger Riemer was unaware that duplexes are already scattered around the County in places like Rockville, Layhill and Glenmont. They are not a new idea at all, but are now non-compliant structures not permitted in SFH neighborhoods, much like high-rises that were built in low-rise areas in the County's past Wild West zoning era. 

Riemer apparently is still closing his ears to his constituents' anger over overcrowded schools and congested roads. Instead of advancing plans to require tighter staging or higher impact taxes, Riemer is finding new ways to increase crowding. This fall, accessory apartments. Next Council term, duplexes.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Montgomery County murders, gang-related crime spiking again in 2018

Massive 72% surge
in violent
gang-related crime;
"Most alarming"
53% jump in 
rape cases

Montgomery County's soft-on-crime County Council continues to have real consequences for victims of crime and gangs in our community. The latest statistics show that, after a 31% spike in murders last year, there have already been more homicides in 2018 than at this time of the year in 2017. That represents a 10% increase in murders this year on top of the 31% increase last year.
Gang related robberies have increased by 36% in 2018, and gang-related assaults have shot up 43% this year. There have been 247 reported cases of rape as of June 30, compared to only 161 by the same point in 2017 - a shocking 53% increase, which Montgomery County Police Chief Tom Manger called "most alarming" in his testimony before the Council Public Safety Committee on July 23.

Despite recent passage of "common sense gun laws" in Maryland, weapons violations are up 6% in 2018. And even after the Council loosened marijuana laws in 2014, marijuana violations are up 11% this year. Drug offenses are up 7.4% overall so far this year. There has also been an increase in human trafficking and kidnappings.

Assaults are up 3.3% in 2018. That increase was driven by an "uptick in gang activity," Assistant Police Chief Russ Hamill told the committee. The department released a list of unsurprising hot spots of gang activity in the County, with Gaithersburg and Montgomery Village being the hardest hit areas. Cider Mill and Lakeforest Mall are being worked overtime by MS-13, and the Hittsquad and L3 gangs.

MS-13 continues to dominate in the Wheaton and Piney Branch areas of the County; an MS-13 "destroyer house" was discovered on University Boulevard last year. "One Way Hustle" is now the dominant gang in Germantown, and Silver Spring is beset by multiple gangs, according to the Council staff report.

Violent gang-related crime is up an astonishing 72% in 2018, a clear failure of the County Council's weak 2017 anti-gang initiative.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Moribund MoCo economy continues to tank in 2018

New regional statistics indicate Montgomery County's moribund economy is continuing its steep decline, even as boom times continue across the river in Northern Virginia. The Stephen S. Fuller Institute at George Mason University noted in its June summary of area economic indicators that in 2018, the suburban Maryland jurisdictions of the D.C. area have only accounted for 5% of regional job growth. In contrast, Northern Virginia has accounted for a whopping 78% of job growth in our region so far this year, a devastating comparison.

Virginia currently enjoys a 3.2% unemployment rate, compared to 4.3% in Maryland. According to Aaron Gregg of the Washington Post, job growth in suburban Maryland counties has "softened" further. He quotes Fuller as noting Montgomery County doesn't have the private sector federal contractors that could benefit from the Trump administration's massive boost in defense spending.
Only one candidate can get Montgomery County's
moribund economy moving again.
Andy Bauer, a regional economist with the Richmond Federal Reserve, reports to the Post that "we're not seeing much job growth at all" in the suburban Maryland counties. "Northern Virginia just hasn't seen the weakness we've seen on the Maryland side."

Montgomery County has notoriously failed to attract defense and aerospace contractors - and any major corporate headquarters at all - over the last two decades. And the County Council has made aggressive moves in recent years to urge existing aerospace firm Lockheed Martin to leave the County, moves that even earned them a rebuke from their Democratic peers at the state level. "We don't need the Lockheed headquarters," Councilmember Nancy Floreen infamously told residents at the Aspen Hill Library in 2010. The Council removed a second Potomac River crossing to the Dulles area - an essential piece of infrastructure to compete with Northern Virginia for government contractors and international business firms - from the County's master plan. And it failed to win the Northrop headquarters, which ended up in - where else? - Northern Virginia.

In the Fuller Institute's June report, the authors wistfully recall the greater regional balance of decades past, when Montgomery County used to be a major player in the region, and Northern Virginia usually only accounted for 50% of regional job growth - not today's whopping 80%. To underline the stakes in the regional competition for the supposed 50,000 jobs of Amazon's HQ2, that job number is only 1500 less than the number of jobs created in the whole region between June 2017 and June 2018.
Montgomery County Council lead economic
advisor Vladimir Lenin
Unmentioned in either report are the County Council's record 2016 property tax and recordation tax hikes, 2010 energy tax hike, $15 minimum wage, and a barrage of other anti-business taxes, fees, restrictions and regulations passed since 2010 alone. While Virginia builds mile after mile of Express Lanes and steals our jobs, our Council is fighting Gov. Larry Hogan's Express Lanes plan for I-270 and the Beltway at every turn. The Council's economic development trips abroad have been only to Communist and socialist nations including China, Cuba, and El Salvador under the rule of President Salvador Sanchez Ceren, who was a commander in the Communist FMLN during the country's civil war. The County even boasted that it had brought in Communist Chinese officials as advisors on the Council's $10 billion Bus Rapid Transit boondoggle.

With fellow travelers like these, is it any wonder Montgomery County's economy is circling the drain?

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Carvana auto vending machine rises over Gaithersburg

The glass tower that appeared off Shady Grove Road at I-270 recently had many wondering, "What is that thing?" A vending machine for cars, that draws a steady stream of gawkers on foot from nearby businesses like Red Lobster. Few, however, possess the magic token that can force the machine to dispense one of its vehicles. Yes, those are used cars inside that tower. A small office and vehicle facility alongside the column make this the most unique used car dealership in the area.